Masechet Makkot 21a-24b

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24 Jun 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Makkot 21a-b: Of pottery shards and jewels

According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, it is possible for a single activity to have several consequences, and, under those circumstances, for a person to become liable for the punishment of malkot (lashes) a number of times. Thus, a person who was plowing a single furrow may end up with eight separate punishments: (1) if the two animals were an ox and a donkey (see Devarim 22:10) and (2-3) both animals were consecrated to the Temple, and (4) the seeds were forbidden mixtures and (5) this was done during the Sabbatical year when plowing is forbidden. Furthermore (6) it was Yom Tov when work is forbidden and the individual is (7) a kohen and (8) a nazir and the furrow was being dug in a cemetery, where it is forbidden for them to enter.

The Gemara relates that this Mishnah was quoted in the context of a discussion between Rabbi Yannai and Rabbi Yochanan, when Rabbi Yannai taught that when dealing with kilayim – forbidden mixtures of planted seeds – even simply covering them with dirt would be forbidden as it is part of the planting process. Rabbi Yochanan argues that this did not need to be taught, since it was clear from our Mishnah that that ruling is correct, since if someone merely plowed over the seeds that is listed as an act that is forbidden. Rabbi Yannai accepted Rabbi Yochanan’s point, but told him that “had he not lifted that haspa (pottery shard), he would not have discovered the jewel underneath it” (that is to say, it was only because of his teaching that Rabbi Yochanan realized the significance of the Mishnah).

The analogy of the clay shard and the jewel can be understood simply as the difference between the valueless covering and the valuable hidden object. Tosafot, however, point to a more exact meaning, quoting Rabbeinu Tam as explaining that on the ocean floor there are large stones that look like pottery shards, and jewels can be found underneath them. Some suggest that the word haspa is, in fact, the name of the sea shell in which pearls are found, and the idea conveyed by Rabbi Yochanan is that if someone does not pay close attention to the simple sea shell, he will not succeed in finding the pearl.

Makkot 22a-b: Jewish courts occasionally gave lashes. But how many?

As the name of the tractate – Masechet Makkot – and the name of the perek  – Elu hen ha-lokin – imply, the focus of the Gemara‘s discussion is on the punishment of makkot – lashes. The Mishnah on today’s daf asks: How many lashes will a person receive if he is found guilty and sentenced to lashes?

According to the Mishnah, the standard penalty of makkot is 39 lashes, although the defendant is first examined to ensure that he can withstand that punishment. If he cannot then he will be given as many as the court believes that he will be able to endure (although it will always be a number divisible by three, since the lashes were given in groups of three). Rabbi Yehuda teaches that the convicted man receives 40 lashes, as is clearly written in the Torah – see Devarim 25:4.

Aside from Rabbi Yehuda, all of the Sages are in agreement that the passage in Sefer Devarim should be interpreted to mean that we give a number of lashes that are close to the 40 mentioned in the Torah, but we do not actually give 40 lashes. This leads Rava to state: How foolish are those individuals who stand up to give respect to a Sefer Torah but not to one of the Sages. For while the Torah writes that the punishment of makkot is 40 lashes, yet the Sages rule that it is one less.

This statement leads the Rambam to suggest that on a biblical level really 40 lashes should be given, but the Sages ruled that only 39 should be given lest an additional one be done accidentally, and the negative commandment forbidding more than 40 to be given would be transgressed. Others understand that the biblical requirement is only 39 lashes, and they interpret Rava’s statement to mean that the oral traditions of the Sages were strong enough to lead to a conclusion that does not fit with the simple meaning of the Torah.

Makkot 23a-b – The 613 commandments in the Torah

How many commandments are there in the Torah?

Tradition has it that there are 613 mitzvot, and the source for this tradition appears on today’s daf. According to Rav Simlai, the 613 mitzvot are divided between 365 negative commandments, matching the days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, matching the number of organs in the human body. According to Rav Hamnuna, the source for this is the pasuk in Sefer Devarim (33:4) Torah tzivah lanu Moshe – Moses commanded us the Torah. In gematria – the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet – the word Torah (400 + 6 + 200 + 5) equals 611, meaning that Moshe taught the Jewish people 611 mitzvot. Add to this the two commandments that the Jewish people heard directly from God with no intermediary – that is, the first two of the Ten Commandments – and we have 613 commandments.

The Rivan (one of Rashi‘s grandsons) explains that the 365 negative commandments match the days in a solar year, representing the fact that the days themselves call out to us to refrain from negative behaviors. Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkkarim suggests that time itself is a message for us. Just as every fleeting moment does not have true existence, since “the present” disappears before you can even realize it, yet we find that “past” and “future” are created from it, similarly it may appear that negative commandments – simply not doing something – do not have any creative aspect to them, yet they generate a wholeness of experience. At the same time, the organs of a person cry out to perform mitzvot, and, in fact, the Sefer Chareidim lists the 613 commandments according to their performance by means of the different organs of the body.

A more common method of compiling lists of the commandments are according to their appearance in the Torah (as done by the Sefer HaChinuch), or according to a logical scheme (as done by the Rambam). In his commentary on the Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the Ramban objects to this exercise, arguing that the number 613 has no real significance and that depending on how one counts and what one includes there may be many more that 613 commandments.

Makkot 24a-b: How many mitzvot must we really do?

On yesterday’s daf we learned the teaching of Rav Simlai who established that there are 613 mitzvot, divided between 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments. The Gemara on today’s daf describes an ongoing process whereby the prophets of subsequent generations appear to have lowered expectations and required fewer and fewer mitzvot. Thus –

King David established eleven mitzvot – see Tehillim, chapter 15. These include such activities as speaking honestly, honoring those who fear God, neither taking bribes nor interest on loans;

The prophet Yeshayahu established six mitzvot – see Yeshayahu 33:15. These include speaking honestly and behaving in upright manner and avoiding evil in all of its forms;

The prophet Micha established three mitzvot – see Micha 6:8. These are doing justice, having mercy and walking modestly in the ways of God

The prophet Yeshayahu the established two mitzvot – see Yeshayahu 56:1. These are justice and righteousness.

Finally, the prophets Amos and Habakkuk each established a single mitzvah – see Amos 5:4 which requires that we seek God, and Habakuk 2:4 which requires faith.

Although the Rivan explains simply that the leader of each generation understood the limits of his people and minimized the requirements so that they would be able to fulfill them, what are we to make of these statements that appear to water down the commandments of the Torah to a decreasing number of ethical laws?

The Ein Yaakov brings an explanation that each of these leaders prayed that fulfillment of these basic requirements would help protect their people from the evil inclination and allow them to perform all of the mitzvot. The Maharal suggests that the prophets did not mean to lessen the number of requirements, rather they were explaining that the system of commandments brings about a completeness that can be mimicked by means of performance of a number of ethical mitzvot, although without the nuance and detail of fulfilling all of the commandments. According to the Maharsha, these prophets were responding to the reality that no single individual will ever fulfill all of the 613 mitzvot, since many of them are limited to specific groups of people or circumstances. These are lists of mitzvot that every person can aspire to fulfill at all times.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.